Abdication of Reason & Stagnation of Muslims

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(“The fundamental malaise of modern Islam is a sense that something has gone wrong with Islamic history. The fundamental problem of modern Muslims is how to rehabilitate that history: to set it going again in full vigour, so that Islamic society may once again flourish as a divinely guided society should and must. The fundamental spiritual crisis of Islam in the twentieth century stems from an awareness that something is awry between the religion which God has appointed and the historical development of the world which He controls” – Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, 1957; Chapter 2 p. 47. )

In South Asia, Muslims have been groping for satisfactory answers, since at least the 18th century, as to why Muslims stagnated. The lament of Hali and the complaint of Iqbal reflect that anguish and frustration. In his lectures titled: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal hinted at the prime cause : “The closing of the door of Ijtihad is pure fiction suggested partly by the crystallization of legal thought in Islam, and partly by that intellectual laziness which, especially in the period of spiritual decay, turns great thinkers into idols. If some of the later doctors have upheld this fiction, modern Islam is not bound by this voluntary surrender of intellectual independence” (p. 178).

It was this abdication of reason which led to the stagnation of Muslims. It must be emphasized that this tragedy occurred centuries before Western Imperialism entered Asian and African lands. It only aggravated the problem by furnishing the traditionalists with false excuses. The fundamentalist of today, who plies his political trade under the banner of religion, is a direct lineal descendant of that variety of traditionalists.

The fear was spread sedulously that reason weakens faith. It still holds very many Muslims in its cruel grip. Shabbir Akhtar writes in the preface to his thought provoking book, A Faith for All Seasons, “There can be no greater proof of the current intellectual paralysis among the followers of Muhammad than their complete failure to respond adequately to the many challenges of secular modernity. Modern Muslims are, as a group of people, embarrassingly unreflective: it were as though Allah had done all the thinking for his devotees. … After developing a great rational philosophical tradition, the adherents of Islam have lapsed into an intellectual lethargy that has already lasted half a millennium….

“In seeking to repossess the legacy of Muhammad for the needs of the modern age, Muslims must recognize and answer the challenges of secularity and religious pluralism. The beginning of the fifteenth century of Islam marks the end of their age of innocence. Can Muslims, then, show their modern critics that Islam supplies its votaries with a faith for all seasons? …

“My principal aim has been simply to counsel Muslims to be reflective, to be intellectually honest enough to face frankly and conscientiously the tribunal of secular reason and to do so within faithful parameters.”

He proceeds to submit that “the right temper of the inquiring mind in matters theological is, believe, to be identified neither with the mood of an unquestioningly submissive religiosity so characteristic of traditional Muslim piety which sees in rejection nothing but an exemplary embodiment of the will to perversity; nor with the aggressively militant irreligion of humanists who see in religion nothing but an expression of some infantile distortion of the purely human consciousness of this world. It is naturally difficult to describe the precise quality of this temper which is informed by at least these two radically opposed moods and which seeks to strike a middle path that combines the virtues of both with the vices of neither. …

“Faith and reason are indeed both implacable masters; and pleasing them both is not always possible. The devout hope is that they will not conflict; faith may well be mightier than reason but it is surely mightiest with reason.” (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago; pp. 37-8).

The great scholar of Islam A. J. Arberry’s remarks in his Forwood Lectures of 1936 are apt. After citing the election of the first Caliph Abu Bakr as “the first rational act” in Islam’s history, he adds, “The acceptance of reason as an ally of faith in any case goes back further still; that is the repeated declaration of the Koran : Surely in the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for men of understanding.” (3:187). (Revelation and Reason in Islam; George Allen; p. 12).

Such verses abound in the Holy Book, urging man to perceive and reflect on the signs. The Quran is the Word of Allah. The Divine text is infallible. It is, however, read and understood by the mind of man created inherently fallible by his Maker. For centuries Muslims have wrestled with the issues that arise – of interpreting the text of the Quran, of contextualizing some of its verses; and, of course, the authenticity and relevance of the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet (PBUH). Abu Bakr forbade their citation. Caliph Umar imprisoned those who did. Iqbal questioned them vigorously.

Rationalism, once regarded as an ally of faith, came to be regarded as its enemy. But rationalism is almost as old as Islam itself as is evident in the Quranic verses urging man to reflect and the edicts of the Prophet himself (PBUH). The legendary Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of the 12th century is regarded as a rationalist of outstanding merit (Vide Faith and Reason in Islam : Averroes’ Exposition of Religious Arguments translated by Ibrahim Najjar of the University of Sharjah; One World, Oxford; 2000). Scholars like Fazlur Rehman and Mohammed Charfi have also enriched the world of scholarship by their contributions on Islamic rationalism.

Take something so mundane as the timing of prayers and sighting of the moon. Chafi’s exposition is devastating and deserves to be quoted in extenso. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, when ambassadors and Muslim travelers were appearing in Nordic countries, the ulema were faced with the problem of determining the hours of the Ramadan fast. To abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset is bearable for people living in equatorial, tropical and temperate regions, but what provision should be made for the inhabitants of polar regions where the days are sometimes endless? According to the fatwa issued at the time, diplomats were permitted to fast during the daylight hours of their country of origin. But this was only a stop gap solution, for it overlooked the fact that some Swedes or Norwegians might be attracted by Islam and have to face the problem in all its original force.

“More recently, ulema assemblies in Hyderabad and Cairo have decided that the hours of sunrise and sunset at the 45th parallel should be applicable as far as the pole in each hemisphere – in other words, that the hours of fasting in Helsinki or Oslo should be determined by the hours of daylight in Bordeaux. This seems a reasonable solution. Yet the Koran says (2:18) : ‘Eat and drink until you can tell a white thread from a black one in the light of the coming dawn. Then resume the fast until nightfall.’ The ulema therefore had to avoid taking the Koran literally and to adopt a solution logically consistent with its spirit. Is this not striking and irrefutable proof that the Koran spoke a language that the inhabitants of Arabia understood fourteen hundred years ago, and that, outside that time and place, its letter is often inappropriate and sometimes entirely inapplicable?”  (Islam and Liberty; Zed Books; p. 98).

On the sighting of the moon, he writes, “Similarly, when the Koran says in chapter 2, verse 185: ‘Whoever of you sees with his eyes the new moon let him fast in the month’ (in Blachere’s French translation), it is addressing the tribes of Arabia which had no precise calendar and adopted lunar months beginning from the moment when they ‘saw with their eyes’ the crescent of the new moon. In consequence of respect for age-old practices and a literal interpretation of the sacred texts, the Muslim world still suffers from the impreciseness of its calendar. People know the feast days or the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan only a few hours in advance – as if it were still impossible for Muslims to calculate the days and hours of the conjunction of the sun and moon, while others are able to send space probes around Jupiter and Saturn.” (ibid. p. 174).

Yet in entire South Asia, Muslims are in thrall to ignorant mullahs who will not permit any reform even if it be on strictly Quranic lines. The situation is no better in India. But as has been well said “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an idea whose time has come”. By 2012 fundamentalism and its violent expression, terrorism, have demonstrated their abject failure to win the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over. Their perceptions and insights would vary from country to country; depending on their history, culture and politics. But Muslims can learn a lot from one another; especially since some fundamentals remain constant.

Turkey is in the process of an Islamic revival which is authentically Turkish. Mustafa Kamal remains Ataturk but his project of forcible expulsion of Islam from the lives of the people, never very successful, is coming apart. Neither forcible Islamization by arbitrary laws, a la Zia-ul-Haq, nor forcible secularization can last. The intellectual ferment in Turkey today holds lessons for Muslims the world over. There can be no better guide to it than Mustafa Akyol’s mini-classic Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W.W. Norton & Co.; 352 pages). The ferment is rooted in the intellectual debates of the 19th century Ottoman Empire.  Kemalism was an aberration; a deviation doomed to fade away. Akyol studied political science and history at Begazici University in Istanbul where he lives. His writings have appeared in journals like Foreign Affairs and dailies like the Washinton Post. The book reflects a deep erudition which is coupled with a gift for close analysis.

Islam prescribes a theology of liberation. How has it come to be exploited by champions of autocratic rule? Its emphasis is on the individual conscience which cannot be suppressed by any collective. The tribe was ignored. Each member was summoned to accept the faith by appealing to his reason. “Appearing about fifty times in the Muslim scripture is the verb aqala, which means ‘to connect ideas together, to reason, or to understand an intellectual argument.’ Throughout its pages, the Quran repeatedly invites the reader to use these faculties to reflect upon the created universe, and man’s own self, as ‘signs’ for finding God. All the wonders of creation, such as the movements of the heavenly bodies, atmospheric phenomena, the capabilities of the human body, the variety of the animal and vegetable life so marvelously designed for men’s needs all of them, according to the Quran, translate into ‘signs for people who use their intellect.’

“The Quranic reasoning is guided by religious dictums, to be sure, and its verses introduce many articles of pure faith, such as the existence of the afterlife, angels, and miracles. But although one needs to go beyond empirical reason to believe in such notions, one does not need to clash with it. In fact, those who clash with reason, according to the Quran, are the unbelievers. ‘They are people,’ a verse bluntly decrees, ‘who do not use their intellect.’ (59:14) ‘Muhammad,’ observed Belgian-born scholar Henri Lammens, ‘is not far from considering unbelief as an infirmity of the human mind. … This Quranic emphasis on reason gave rise to the Rationalist school in Islam, which in turn laid the philosophical foundation for individual freedom.’ The Quran also introduced into Arab society the concept that individuals have inalienable rights. Justice was at the core of Muhammad’s social message, and justice meant not just punishment for those who commit crimes but also protection from those who could violate others’ rights.” (pp. 51-2). Formerly dowry was paid to the bride’s father. Islam decreed that it be paid to the bride herself and that women should also inherit property.

Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) was told that he was “only a warner and a bringer of good news.” And “we did not appoint you over them as their keeper, and you are not set over them as their guardian.” The Quran also recognized the Meccans’ right to disbelieve. It threatened unbelievers with hellfire, but it also emphasized that, in this world, they should be free to choose their own path. “It is the truth from your Lord,” one verse read, “so let whoever wishes have belief and whoever wishes be an unbeliever.” Instead of a polity solely defined by Islam, he founded a territorial polity based on religious pluralism.” (pp. 55-6).

The word umma acquired an exclusively Muslim meaning. But in the Charter of medina it included Jewish tribes also. Clause 25 says: “The Jews of Banu Aruf together with Muslims constitute an umma”.   Akyol puts it brilliantly “The Prophet (PBUH) brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words but he lived a life of his own age”. From this profound truth follows two important conclusions of present day relevance. Non-Muslims judge the prophet (PBUH) by modern standards and Muslims take the standards of his day as eternally valid.

What led the Muslims astray? Akyol’s book answers the question as to why, when, and by whom was the “door to ijtihad” closed. The historical paradox has perplexed non-Muslims also. David Forte, an American professor of law, wrote: “There is great mystery in Islam. Islam should have been the first civilization to have abandoned slavery; it was the last. Islam should have been the first to establish complete religious liberty; today, non-Muslims suffer egregious persecution in Muslim lands. Islam should have been the first to establish social equality for women. Instead, women who stray outside the family’s code of behaviour are murdered with impunity. Islam should have been the foremost civilization to observe the humanitarian laws of war, but its empires have been no different from others; some claim they have been worse.”

We hear much about international humanitarian law today. The International Committee of the Red cross has rendered high service in its development. But even Bernard Lewis notes “Fighters in a jihad are enjoined not to kill women, children, and the aged unless they attack first, not to torture or mutilate prisoners, to give fair warning of the resumption of hostilities after a truce, and to honour agreements. The medieval jurists and theologians discuss at some length the rules of warfare, including questions such as which weapons are permitted and which are not. There is even some discussion in medieval texts of the lawfulness of missile and chemical warfare, the one relating to mangonels [missile throwers] and catapults, the other to poison-tipped arrows and the poisoning of enemy water supplies. … Some jurists permit, some restrict, some disapprove of the use of these weapons. The stated reason for concern is the indiscriminate casualties that they inflict. “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.” “At no point … do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.”

Islamic scholars had unambiguously opposed the intentional killing of noncombatants, because the Quran ordered : “Fight in the Way of God against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits.” And the Prophet (PBUH) was on record for having ordered his troops: “Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the woman.” Thence came the Islamic rules of war, something today’s Islamist terrorists are working hard to ignore or bypass.” (ibid.; p. 73).

Akyol analyses the credo of the schools of thought that soon emerged. “In Iraq, a school of theologians known as the Mutazilites tried to address the issues within a rational perspective. As genuine believers of Islam, and sophisticated intellectuals who knew other traditions, including Greek philosophy, their aim was to demonstrate the compatibility of Muslim faith and reason.

“Most Mutazilites were followers of Abu Hanifa (thus, Hanafis) in jurisprudence. They subscribed to the free-will idea. For them, this was not just a preferred view – it was a logical outcome of one of God’s crucial attributes: justice. Since God was absolutely just, they reasoned, He would not reward or punish His creatures without reason. Thus, humans would receive reward in heaven or punishment in hell as a result of their free choice. Anyone who believes in a just God, the Mutazilites concluded, had to accept that man is “the creator of his deeds.” Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal’s thought was as illiberal as Abu Hanifa’s was liberal. It is unnecessary to trace here the points on which they differed. The contest was harmful.

“Al-Shafi, Hanbal, and their adherents found their answers in the Hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the prophet and allegedly witnessed by his closet companions. (That’s why they were called ahl al-hadith, the People of Hadith.) These narratives were actually hearsay – what people believed, or claimed to believe, to be accurate reports from the Prophet’s era. ‘One day I saw the prophet walking towad the mosque,’ for example, a Hadith would recount from one of the prophet’s companions. Then this would be supported by an account of the six of seven people, on average, who heard the story from the another : ‘This is what Al-Imam Tirmithi narrated through Ibn Mahdi from At-Thawri from Waasil and Mansour and Al-A’mash from Abeen Wae’I from Amr ibn Shurahbeel from Ibn Mas’oud who said …’

“Of course as in ‘telephone game’ – it was highly optimistic to think that the original message could have survived such a long chain of transmitters. The presence of so many embellished stories only intensified the challenge. The Qur’an was written down during the Prophet’s lifetime, and canonized right after his death, but the Hadith were simply oral traditions. That’s why it was an open field for anyone who wanted to put some alleged word into the mouth of the Prophet in order to justify a view to which he subscribed, or an interest he wanted to pursue. The very fact that the Hadiths became more authoritative under al-Shafi and other People of Tradition added to the motivation for fabrication.

“Hence, at the turn of the second century after the Prophet’s death, Islamdom became a Hadith wasteland, with traditions justifying almost every view. Arab nationalists made up narratives showing the prophet as an Arab supremacist; others soon responded with Hadiths praising the virtues of Persians or Turks.”

Akyol cites instances of convenient forgeries for years. “Ironically, while zealously opposing rationality as a dangerous ‘innovation,’ the People of Tradition brought their own innovations to the Shariah, such as the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, social limitations on women, bans on art and music, and punishments for wine drinking and other sorts of sinful behavior. None of these are in the Qur’an; all of them are in the Hadiths.” (p. 103).

The Traditionalists won the war. The Rationalists lost. “In the later centuries (from the twelfth onward), stagnation would deepen as Islamdom became more and more isolated and as trade, the main engine of dynamism in the Orient, gradually shifted elsewhere. First came ‘the loss of the Mediterranean, due to the Crusaders’ occupation of the whole eastern and north-eastern coastline of this commercially vital sea. This argues the great French historian Fernand Braudel, is probably the best explanation for ‘Islam’s abrupt reverse in the 12th century.’ In the thirteenth century, the Mongol catastrophe would impose a much more abrupt, and tragic, reversal.

“The final blow would come in the fifteenth century with the Age of Discovery, during which Western Europeans found direct ocean routes to India, China, and elsewhere. Consequently, world trade routes would rapidly shift to the oceans, enriching Western Europe. Not only did this further impoverish the Middle East, it even made the Mediterranean a back-water. This whole northwestern movement of ‘world capital’ between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries explains, in the apt title of one of Braudel’s essays, ‘the greatness and decline of Islam’.” (p. 127).

Since the Muslim had turned their backs on scientific learning, their world proved unequal to the challenge. Regression set in. With it came revivalism in some and abject compromises in others. Innovation was regarded as bida. By the 18th century the West had become “a colossal force of innovation”. The East declined.

Akyol traces its impact on the Ottoman Empire and analyses its reaction to Western intrusion. Turkey faced a mortal danger from Russia. But he does not ignore important figures elsewhere like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Iqbal. Nor does he neglect the rise of feminism before Kemal. However, the Muslim world was turned upside down at the end of World War I. “The foreign invasions changed the entire intellectual landscape of Islamdoms. The West was no longer a model to emulate but rather an intruder to eradicate. The question, ‘How can we be like the West?’ would soon be replaced by ‘How can we resist the West?’ And the push for ijtihad would be overshadowed by the drive for jihad.” (p.174).

In this fray entered a war hero, Mustafa Kemal, who usurped power from the democrats; a fact commonly overlooked. “His vision was not the only alternative for the Turkish Republic during its genesis. The preceding War of Liberation (1919-22) was led by a democratic Parliament, convened in Ankara, which included deputies with diverse views and backgrounds. Right after the war, the deputies who supported the views and the persons of Mustafa Kemal – the Kemalists – founded the Republican People’s Party (RPP). Other prominent names, including war heroes Kaxim Karabekir and Ali Fuat Cebesoy and feminist writer Halide Edip, founded a competing party, the Progressive Republican Party (PRP).”

“One was liberal, the other was not. The Kemalists believed in an all-encompassing and all-powerful state that knows what is best for society thanks to “science.” The PRP, in contrast, believed that government should be limited and society should be free to accommodate diverse views. Since the PRP was liberal, it did not share the excessive secularism of the Kemalists. Hence, one of the articles in the party’s charter expressed ‘respect for religious beliefs and ideas.’ Most members were also in favor of preserving the caliphate – not as a theocratic authority but as a symbol of unity – and they were hoping to achieve a liberal democracy similar to that of Great Britain. Had the party survived, it would have represented a modernization vision similar to that of the Ottomans.

“But, alas, it lasted only six months. In June 1925, using a Kurdish rebellion in the East as a pretext, the Kemalist government closed down its liberal rival indefinitely. Its leaders were tried in the Independence Tribunal, … The stated reason for closure was the PRP’s ‘respect for religious beliefs and ideas’ clause in its charter. This statement could, the Kemalists argued, ‘encourage religious reactionaries’. The leading figures of the PRP remained under police surveillance until the death of Mustafa Kemal in 1938.” (pp. 182-3).

Akoyl draws a brilliant analogy which is best set out in full. “The ways Muslims reacted to this crisis also mirror those of the Jews. Among the latter, four distinct camps emerged in the face of Roman power. The Sadducees decided to cooperate with Rome and adopt some of the Hellenistic attitudes – just as some Muslims today have done vis-à-vis the secular West. The Essenes preferred to renounce the world and devote themselves to a mystical life in isolation – like today’s Sufi-minded Muslims. The third Jewish party, the Pharisees, refused to cooperate with Rome and engaged in passive rejectionism, which led them to a very strict observance of Jewish law. This, too, is very similar to what the more conservative Muslims decided to do in the twentieth century : cling strictly to the Shariah and reject anything new and foreign.

“The fourth element among the Jews of the time of Christ was also interesting – and quite relevant. These were the Zealots, a more radical offshoot of the Pharisees, who decided to wage an armed struggle against not just the Romans but also their Jewish collaborators. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, these men were passionately insistent that ‘God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.’ They, in other words, wanted to push out the infidels and their allies and establish a theocracy – just as the militant Islamists of today wish to do….

“After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, the Zealots took refuge by capturing the Roman fortress of Masada. After three of repeated sieges, the Roman military finally gave up trying to seize the fortress intact and burned down the walls. When the Romans stormed in, the Zealots and their families had all committed suicide, rather than surrender. If there had been bombs in the era, the Zealots probably would have used them – to kill not just themselves but also their enemies. And the Romans probably would have labeled them ‘suicide bombers’.…

“The Muslim extremists who resort to, or sympathize with, such deplorable violence did not come out of the blue. The political history of the past two centuries of Islamdom holds the key to their emergence. The question of why Islamic liberalism – which shared such promise in the late nineteenth century – succumbed to a radical wave of Islamism cannot be answered by examining the internal dynamics of Islam alone. The intrusion of Western powers, and the secular dictators they supported in the Muslim world, are also partly responsible. Both the Romans and the Herodians, one can say, had a share in the creation of the Zealots.” (pp. 191-3).

The author points out that in none of the counties in which Islamists came to power – Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan – did they create the heaven they had promised. It was “totalitarianism in Islamic garb”. The sharia was its tool. He discusses the sharia on blasphemy and apostasy and demonstrates how incorrect the notions held by some are.

On blasphemy Akoyl writes : “When a non-Muslim curses God, the Qur’an, the Prophet, or any other sacred value of Islam, he is, at the very least, being disrespectful. Muslims would be considered disrespectful, too, if they insulted other people’s faiths. ‘Do not curse those they call upon besides God,’ the Qur’an warns them, ‘in case that makes them curse God in animosity, without knowledge.’ …

“If we were living in an ideal world, everyone would listen to this fair advice and respect each other’s religion. In real life, however, people do satirize, mock, and insult each other’s religion, including ours. Moreover, what other people put forward is a fair criticism sometimes might sound offensive, simply because of the differences between perspectives and cultures. What, then, should Muslims do?…. Traditional schools of the Shariah have a concept called kufr (blasphemy), which is considered a crime punishable by death. It is to this concept to which angry Muslims who want to ‘behead those who insult Islam’ refer. … In the case of Islam, these two separate categories roughly correspond to, as we have seen, the Qur’an and the post-Qur’anic tradition. All elements of the latter are somehow ‘manmade’. And, tellingly enough, on the issue of blasphemy, as with the matter of apostasy, the Qur’an is surprisingly lenient. Its verses threaten blasphemers with God’s punishment in the hereafter but do not impose on them any earthly punishment. As with apostasy, the punishment for blasphemy comes from certain narratives in the Hadith literature and the way they were interpreted by classical scholars.” (pp. 279-281). It is a man-made law on blasphemy and apostasy utterly devoid of Quranic sanction. How can you kill a mortal in the name of one who came as a Mercy to Mankind?

The Quran does not ask Muslims to conquer the world. On the contrary, it asks them to accept diversity and pluralism. “And We have sent down the Book [the Qur’an] to you with truth, confirming and conserving the previous Books. … We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but he wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (5:48).

It must be a world in which every one is free to believe what he wants to believe “Liberty is what everyone needs to find God”; each in his own way.

The author is an eminent Indian scholar, legal expert and columnist.